As we watched Ted Koppel’s “The Price of Security” last night I had a thought just as my wife reached for the dictionary. “What are you looking up?” I asked. “The definition of war,” she said. Almost simultaneously, she had the same thought: We have mischaracterized the struggle with which we find ourselves consumed.
Certainly war can be both a military conflict and an intense battle without killings. But by buying into the characterization that we are in a “War on Terror” we have allowed the neo-conservatives to frame this debate. And indeed it is a frame that those who would blow up babies want. War allows them to paint us as the other side who would, through shock and awe, destroy their culture and their religion.
But it is how we Americans view this struggle that concerns me. The “War on Terror” or the “War Against Terrorism,” while not only reducing the struggle to one consumed with tactics instead of ideas, frames it as something we’re against. We can claim it is radical fundamentalism or “Islamic fascism” we oppose, but by being against something, Osama bin Laden and his disciples can easily contort it, abetted by our inelegant leaders, to being a crusade against Islam, Muslim values and their way of life. Imagine if Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Okalahoma City FBI building had prompted Bill Clinton to declare a “War on Christian Fundamentalism.”
This war, as Koppel’s program suggests, also allows George W. Bush to assume powers that have no limit and, indeed, no end because we will never have a clear completion to the battle with those who, in the name of religion, will kill themselves. A war has always suggested that there will be a surrender and a treaty that will end the conflict. We will never see those already steeped in terror surrender or affix their signature to peace. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone describe how this War on Terror would end. How will we know we’ve won? If there is one suicide bombing a month? a year? a decade? By framing it as a war, this administration and its ideological successors will always demand we endow them with the sole discretion to wage their war on our enemies, our liberties and our privacy.
In the name of security, we will see our liberties curtailed as long as the administration deems necessary. As Zoe Baird, president of the Markle Foundation, put it last night, “It is impossible to harden all the targets.”
We prevent the terrorists from killing us to be sure. But it’s the hearts and minds of the children whose picture I saw at the end of the Lebanese War that we must win. They were waving the picture of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. We can’t lose these children or they will be the ones attacking ours.
Most important is the concern voiced by Alberto Mora, the former general counsel for the Navy in the Bush administration, who worries that in waging this battle, “We will cease to be Americans.”
Democrats need to reframe this struggle, not as a war against anything but as an effort for something. It may not fit on a bumper sticker or have the calamitous imperative of the “War on Terror,” but this is essentially the struggle for American ideals and our desire to spread them, not by force and not because we think everything American is morally superior, but because we are transparent and believe in the rule of law and the respect for the individual and the differences among us.
If our children will enjoy lives free from fear that any moment the shopping mall they are walking in, the restaurant they are eating in, or the school their children are leaning in will be bombed, then we need to see what we are engaged in as a struggle of ideas and for our ideals, neither of which are effectively delivered through the barrel of a gun.
That certainly doesn’t mean we don’t fight to defend American lives when attacked and even attack to prevent the loss of lives of others. We do. But we need to remember what makes us Americans. It is not how we wage war, but how we nurture the pursuit of happiness.